'Secret inquests' voted  through Commons: update

The House of Commons yesterday debated the Coroners and Justice Bill. After a ‘highly charged’ debate, the government scraped through new powers, with a majority of just eight votes, which enable the Justice Minister to suspend any coroner’s inquest and replace it with a ‘secret inquiry’, held under the terms of the 2005 Inquiries Act. The Indie’s Robert Verkaik has a good report on it here.

Inquiries under the 2005 Act are not ‘public’ or independent in any meaningful way, as they are largely controlled by the government minister that orders them. Bereaved relatives, journalists and the public could be excluded from part of the inquiry’s hearings. The final report of any inquiry under the Inquiries Act would be published at the discretion of the government minister, and crucial findings could be omitted at the minister’s say-so, “in the public interest”.

Public access is one of the most important aspects of coroners’ inquests in this country, and if someone dies at the hands of the state, their relatives have a right to know what happened. Jack Straw had already made one attempt to grant the government the power to order some inquests to be held in secret. After vocal criticism and defeat in the Lords, he dropped the plans. Now he may get them back.

All is not lost. The Bill goes back to the House of Lords on Wednesday and if they take a stand against this move towards greater secrecy, as they have done before, the government will have no time to get the Bill through before this current parliament ends. Possibly some kind of compromise will be found.

With apologies for rather one-sided sourcing, Simon Carr’s commons sketch highlights just how weak the government’s case is. Jack Straw’s stated reason for his persistent attempts to force this measure through is that national security could be jeopardised if phone-tap evidence was revealed to jurors or the public at an inquest. When asked how many cases this could effect, his revealed that there was just one. So the UK would push through a measure which will undermine the transparency and openness of coroners inquests and deny grieving families access to the facts, for the sake of one case.

Hopefully the Lords won’t stand for this.

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